A dark Checker Cab van pulled up to my east side house at 5 a.m. on a Thursday morning. Normally, this would mean I was heading to the airport. Instead, I spent most of my morning riding in the front seat of long-time cab driver Steve Hussein’s cab, who agreed to let me do a ride along for this story.
We headed out into the dark Detroit morning, down 96 and off the Evergreen exit. Hussein stopped at a busy gas station for coffee. “I’m going to lock you in, OK,” he said as he closed the door. He won’t take any chances after he was held up at gunpoint in an early morning fill-up years ago. This particular gas station was well-lit, busy, and a Project Green Light station.
Hussein has been driving a taxi for Checker Cab in Detroit since the late 80s, when he moved his family to Dearborn. He drove me through the still-dark streets off Plymouth Road and told me how they used to be filled with houses. “There used to be people here,” he said, as we passed boarded up and burnt out homes scattered through the neighborhood.
Hussein told me about a 94-year-old woman who lives nearby in the same house where she was born. He sometimes picks her daughter up from the airport when she visits. Her daughter tells him to take care of her mom, but he reminds her that her mom carries a gun.
He asked me how I like the east side, and I told him I like being close to Belle Isle and the Riverfront. He called the west side his backyard, and asked me when the city will start doing something for the neighborhoods. Hussein pointed out many Detroit schools that have closed in the neighborhood, and noted the need for safety, jobs, and better service in the neighborhoods.
Our first customer was a regular of Hussein’s—an older woman who works a 6 a.m. shift at a Kroger in Dearborn. Hussein told me her trip is $17 each way. Ride-hailing services like Uber or Lyft might be cheaper, he said, but they require credit cards. Sometimes her son picks her up at the end of the shift; sometimes he can’t.
Later that morning, we drove back down Plymouth Road, so he could show me some of the changes he’s seen. An old Kmart is now a church. An old Farmer Jack grocery store is now a church. An old Dunkin’ Donuts is now a pharmacy. Vacant land used to be a factory. Many smaller storefronts are now churches.
Most of Hussein’s customers are regulars, and he prefers it that way. He gets to know the people and it’s safer for the drivers. If he picks up a call, he’ll close the protective barrier between the front and the back seats. Dealing with the public is always a risk he said, and cab drivers are regularly trained by the Detroit Police Department on how to handle dangerous situations.
The 7 a.m. hour brought sunlight and heavier traffic. This is the busiest time for cab drivers, Hussein told me. We drove to Warrendale, a once Polish neighborhood that’s seeing an increase in the Iraqi population spilling over from Dearborn. We pulled up to one of the many single-family residences to pick up a 14-year-old boy to take him to school near West Warren and 94. He didn’t say a word the entire ride.
Along the way, we stopped for another regular customer. Hussein wasn’t sure if he’d be here. “Every morning I do the same thing and I hope somebody will come out.” He pulled into a driveway and tapped his horn. A young boy peaked his head out the door. “He’s not here!” “Will he be here tomorrow?” “Yeah!”
That’s good, Hussein told me, as we headed back out on the road. I asked him why kids would need to take a taxi to school. “That’s a good question,” he said. Maybe the bus doesn’t come out that way. Maybe his caregivers are working. But school kids are regular customers, and our next stop picked up a brother and sister near 94 and Livernois to take to a school near Vernor and Dix in Southwest Detroit.
Our next stop took us to the College Park neighborhood near Southfield Road and West Outer Drive. Another regular got into the cab to go to his dialysis appointment at the Henry Ford Health Center in New Center. He scheduled a pick-up four hours later from Hussein.
The morning commute slowed to a crawl on both Southfield and the Lodge. 96 seemed to move quicker. Hussein noted the backup of cars leading to Southfield Road from 96, as traffic has been rerouted for I-75 South construction.
I asked if Uber and Lyft have had much of an impact on the cab industry here. Hussein said no, and that the high insurance rates of Detroit have had a bigger impact. Some drivers are changing their license to a state limousine because the insurance isn’t as expensive.
We drove back out toward Southfield and Joy Road, where Hussein wanted to show me a housing development that had started, stopped, and looked like it was starting again. The Garden View Estates development started construction in 2007 and stopped; but work is happening around it now, which Hussein was happy about.
As we headed back out on Ashbury Park, he pointed out a public school that had closed and is now a church, and a busy charter school across the street.
Our last pick-up of the morning took us to Cody Rouge, where another of Hussein’s regular customers was picked up for his job at a barber shop off of Telegraph Road. The majority of his customers are going from work, school, the hospital, or to nursing homes.
As we headed down 94 and back to the east side, I asked him what he thinks of what’s been happening in Detroit over the past five years. “I love it!,” he said. “But it has to spread. What’s the point of getting the heart functioning if the rest of the body is not?”